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Live from #SABEW11: Whole Foods co-CEO discusses corporate responsibility

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Businesses need to accept a wider set of responsibilities, which includes taking care of their employees, said Whole Foods c0-CEO Walter Robb at the 2011 Society of American Business Editors and Writers Conference in Dallas. Businesses that accept this philosophy will prosper; the market conspires to help businesses that help people. According to Robb, the old business model that revolved solely around margins and profits “has run its course, now there’s a new way of thinking about (business).”

Here are highlights from Robb’s presentation:

Employees work better when they feel appreciated. It’s impossible to achieve any of your business goals if you don’t have a satisfied, engaged workforce. “It’s such a basic concept, yet so many employees fly right by it,” says Robb. Another way to think about it is that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your guests.

Give your employees freedom. If you feel the urge to inspire passion in your employees, resist it. A much better approach is to simply create a workplace where employees can feel comfortable, and then let the employees take care of themselves.”It’s not my job to give people their passion,” said Robb.  “It’s my job to help create an environment where people can find their own passion.” This means encouraging mobility within your workforce and offering open-ended training instead of cornering workers into a specific task.

Keep the lines of communication open. During the height of the recession, Robb held town meetings all over the country. He tried to be as open as possible about the problems that the company was facing and the survival measures that the company might have to take. “You don’t service anyone by not telling the truth,” said Robb. The best way to handle difficult times is to try to make people understand the situation and get them involved in finding a solution. Robb pointed out that many companies had the opposite approach during the recession, choosing to sacrifice the interests of their employees in the name of short-term fixes. “A lot of organizations showed their true colors during that stress test,” he said.

The little things matter. When Robb travels by plane he uses Southwest and sits coach, he says. Employees notice things like this.